The mining industry uses a massive amount of energy. Energy costs represent 30% of operating expenses for mining companies, and overall the industry accounts for 12% of all the industrial energy usage in the US.
Historically, mining has been associated with a single-minded approach to fuel economic growth by maximizing output of high-demand raw materials at the lowest cost, and environmental impact was too often an afterthought. Also, the industry’s dependence on reliability and predictability has resulted in resistance to deploying new technology.
In addition to seeking to reduce energy consumption as a business objective, mining companies are also feeling pressure from employees, shareholders and the governments to set ambitious sustainability goals – retaining licenses often depends on demonstrating the ability to contain and reduce environmental impact. Emerging technologies, powered by private cellular networks equipped with the latest generation of mobile broadband in 5G, hold the potential to revolutionize the mining industry not only by driving efficiencies but also by shifting to more sustainable mining.
However, we are now observing a shift to an increasingly environmental concern which drives more sustainable practices across the industry. Through the deployment of automation, electrification, renewable energy and digitalization, enabled by private mobile networks, mining companies can rise to meet these challenges.
Automation for safety and sustainability
Automation in mining is one of the most important technologies driving the industry and can mitigate unnecessary risks and reduce operational emissions. Autonomous vehicles, automated drilling, automated site monitoring and automated ventilation are critical to the future of mining.
Autonomous and more sustainable mining processes supported by 5G connectivity are single-handedly reshaping the mining industry. 5G private networks provide superior connectivity for mining operations than other current offerings due to lower latency and a higher bandwidth for many use cases involved, especially when it comes to automation. Lower latency is critical to autonomous vehicles that receive guidance messages from the automation system tens of times per second. Private networks also keep the data on-site, providing additional security as well as responsiveness through a localized cloud.
According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), autonomous vehicles utilize far less fuel than alternative vehicles and require significantly less maintenance, resulting in a lowered carbon footprint. OECD reviewed data related to a mine in Brucutu, Brazil, where autonomous trucks contributed to a fuel savings of 10%. This amount of saving is a win-win for both mining companies and the environment, saving cost and reducing carbon emissions.
We have done a more concrete quantification of carbon emission through a collaboration with Swedish mining company Boliden, automation powered by a 4G/5G network saved the company approximately 1 percent of the Aitik mine’s total annual costs. What’s more, there was also an estimated 10 percent saving in fuel consumption, which corresponds to a reduction of 9,400 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
Another important aspect is automated ventilation which is not only incredibly important to the safety of the workers, but also the environment. Through automated ventilation, the systems do not operate around the clock like other ventilation systems, but instead rely on sensors to pinpoint and address hazardous fumes and gasses with greater efficiency, making the mine safer while using less energy. Additionally, the automated system has the capacity to control temperatures. Automated site monitoring can also aid in identifying potential issues prior to occurring, including monitoring levels of emissions in a mine. Through real-time monitoring and automated controls, smart ventilation uses less energy and can reduce underground ventilation costs by up to 60%.
A sensor network that monitors environmental conditions in real-time
Another benefit of smart mines is that there has been an evolution in the quality of data that mining companies can access. 5G-ready private cellular networks can extend the volume of data and the types of indicators that are being captured – overall increasing the density of information by a factor of 60.
This increased data flow allows mining operators to observe emissions while tracking water and air quality in real-time, allowing tighter control of environmental conditions and saving on energy output. In addition, this enhanced condition monitoring can help mine operators reduce maintenance costs by an average of 20%, according to Ericsson’s Connected Mining report, which can reduce environmental impact as well as operating costs.
Remote sensing is additionally of incredible value especially in remote or hazardous areas. By implementing drones that rely on the low latency of a private network, mining companies are able to monitor and mitigate dangerous situations promptly. AI/Machine learning tools enabled by the large amounts of collected data can also help mine operators pinpoint trouble spots early, enabling better predictive maintenance and preventing environmental issues before they occur.
Ultimately, 5G environments will help deliver the (ultra-) high-definition video and sub-millisecond latency to enable an ever-wider array of use cases involving real-time remote control of high-speed robots and drones and connect hundreds of thousands of IoT sensors and industrial devices — above and underground.
Superior connectivity powers it all
Through private networks, productivity is increased by optimizing efficiencies around the clock, which wasn’t always the case prior to the implementation of smart and sustainable mining. Providing solutions like Ericsson’s Dedicated Networks will offer on-site connectivity that supports electric mining equipment, cross-machine fleet control and autonomous material handling. These advancements will significantly supplement personnel safety, productivity, cost-efficiency and sustainability as the industry modernizes through innovative solutions along the path to net-zero and green milestones in mining.